Tag Archives: essay writing

How to improve writing fluency for students of all learning abilities?

The following blog post was written for Texthelp. To link to the original post, click here.

In my 8th grade classroom I have all different learners from students with 504s and IEPs, ENL learners, and a handful of high performing learners. This week my 8th grade students are working on writing an argumentative essay after  finishing  the book To Kill a Mockingbird. I often give my students choice on writing assessments but for this all grade read, students must write a five paragraph argumentative essay that answers: Is To Kill a Mockingbird relevant to read today or is it racist and outdated?

A daunting experience

As teachers, our job is to help improve the writing fluency for ALL students. For many of my students, staring at a blank page or screen can be daunting. If we are going to help our students “write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence” (Next Generation Learning Standards WI),  providing scaffolding in different forms provides support for students to articulate their thinking. When teachers provide scaffolds in the forms of  graphic organizers, models and mentor texts, and sentence frames, essay writing becomes more attainable for the diverse learners in the classroom.

A graphic organizer  breaks down a task into small parts to support student thinking. Completing a graphic organizer helps students write in smaller bursts by following a template. A high performing learner might not need this type of support or guidance but particularly for my ENL and struggling writers who might not have the words or academic language just yet, providing these graphic organizers and sentence stems can help students develop the writing muscles and vocabulary necessary for academic writing.  Each graphic organizer is specific to the writing task. For example, the argumentative essay graphic organizer below helps students map out their thoughts, organize their evidence, and distinguish claims from counterclaims.

An image of an argumentative essay graphic organizer

I am always developing writing activities and support for the diverse students in my classroom, but you may prefer a digital approach. WriQ is Texthelp’s newest digital tool to focus on writing that my students and I are currently using. High performing learners are more independent and are looking for immediate feedback on word choice, accuracy, grammar and writing mechanics; WriQ provides these in its personalized feedback. Similarly, for students who need guided support to increase writing skills, WriQ and graphic organizers work in tandem. Sitting down for writing conferences is now a student driven process due to the feedback that students learn about the writing process and their writing products with WriQ.

A lifelong skill

Writing is a lifelong skill, and the more students write, the better they develop as writers and communicators. This requires that students write daily and have opportunities to revise their writing. With revision opportunities, students are able to reexamine their writing with a critical eye based on the feedback from both the teacher and WriQ and grow as writers. Revision is an important part of the writing process and can be utilized in ways that empower student writers.

The Next Generation Learning Standards identify lifelong practices of writers “strengthen writing by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach” and this is something that we must make time for in our classrooms. The more students have the opportunity to write, revise and craft their words in ways that articulate complex ideas, critical thinking and problem solving, the better they will become at producing clear and coherent writing.

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What Makes a Great Student Essay?

My students have been writing essays for their summative assessment after reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Students had a choice between three essay prompts:

  • A dominant theme in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the symbolic importance of the mockingbird. In the story, Atticus tells Jem and Scout “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” (pg. 119) In a well written essay, chose TWO Characters in the novel and analyze how the mockingbird is a metaphor for their characters and actions. Use specific examples and direct textual quotes to support your claim.
  • In the novel, those who do not conform to what society expects of them are punished directly or indirectly. Choose TWO characters (other than Boo Radley and Tom Robinson) and discuss how their inability or refusal to  conform to social norms contributes to their status as outsiders and or outcasts. Use specific examples and direct textual quotes to support your claim.
  • As Scout and Jem mature, they notice that people in Maycomb lead hidden lives. Among these characters are Calpurnia, Dill, Mrs. Dubose, and Atticus.  Choose two characters in To Kill a Mockingbird who lead double lives and explain what circumstances cause them to do so. Use specific examples and direct textual quotes to support your claim.

After writing and editing student essays for more than a week, I received a handful of outstanding essays. I wanted to screencast the student exemplars to showcase for all my students the elements that identify the essay as an exemplar. A few of the characteristics include: robust textual evidence, a clear thesis or claim, strong vocabulary, and distinct voice.

By screen casting my read through, I am thinking aloud my annotations of the student’s essay.  Posting the videos online help my students (and parents) see, read, hear, and understand the learning targets we are aiming for in our writing and guide the student writers in my classroom still looking for models and mentors. Check out the two essays I showcase in the videos below.

 

Looking for more students examples and samples of writing to use for professional development or as a teaching tool with your own students? Achieve the Core has a library of student writing samples by grade level and types of writing prompts.

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Flipped Writing Instruction

This week I had to be out of the classroom for meetings and I wanted to make sure my students had productive writing workshop to begin working on literary essays. I decided to make screencasts to review the elements of essay writing: introductory paragraphs, building better body paragraphs, and writing a conclusion. Using Screencast-O-Matic, a free screen recording program, I recorded my mini lesson to go along with each slide deck covering the elements of and essay. These screen recording were to help my students begin writing their Multi-Paragraph Outline for their literary essay.

Dana Johansen and Sonja Cherry-Paul wrote the book Flip Your Writing Workshop: A Blended Learning Approach (Heinemann, 2016) describing how students can access instruction independently, in small groups, and at home through flipped learning.  Johansen and Cherry-Paul write,

“Flipped learning is a blended approach to instruction. Catlin R. Tucker (2012) defines blended learning as a hybrid style in which educators “combine traditional face-to-face instruction with an online component” (11). Teachers “flip” lessons online so students can access them at school or at home and work at their own pace. Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams (2012), leaders of the flipped learning movement, state that “time is freed up to explore and discover concepts in an inquiry-based fashion” (46). Troy Cockrum (2014) says educators can use flipped learning to transform their learning environment. As with other teaching methods, flipped learning can play a central or a minor role in your writing workshop.”

With the ideas presented in the book fresh in my mind, I took my slide deck that I would have presented in my classroom as a large class lesson and screen-casted each lesson –recorded my voice thinking aloud through the elements of the essay. By screen casting my lesson and posting them in Google Classroom, my students can reference the videos when they get stuck writing. The notes that my students take from the flipped lesson go into their Interactive English Notebooks to help students to learn strategies like six ways to start an essay. The videos let students manage their own writing workshop time, work at their own pace, and return to key elements of essay writing throughout the school year.

Check out the three videos I have made so far. I can see myself creating a few others to touch upon leading in and leading out of textual evidence and formulating a claim.

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What’s With TEXAS Paragraphs

It wasn’t until I arrived at my current school that writing was streamlined across the middle school with a specific format for introductory paragraphs, body paragraphs, and conclusions. We follow a TEXAS format for the body paragraphs of argumentative and literary essays. TEXAS stands for:

Topic Sentence

contExt

textual eXample

Analysis

So What?

The body paragraphs are the meat of an essay. Body paragraphs must include specific textual evidence to support a claim and provide analysis of the textual evidence describing how it supports the claim. Stating “This quote proves . . . “ is not enough. Analysis needs to hold the reader’s hand and walk them through the connection between the textual evidence and the claim. At the eighth grade level, students are required to include three or more examples (2 direct quotes and one indirect example) per paragraph to really prove a claim is valid.

The hardest part for my students is the analysis after finding the strongest evidence to support one’s claim. What is good analysis? And how do students know what to say in the ANALYSIS? I tell my students to get rid of the word “proves” and begin with the words “This shows that” following the quote. This will forces students to EXPLAIN and elaborate on their thinking without summarizing the connection between the evidence and the claim.

Let’s look at a student exemplar.

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So to help students write off of a quote and practice analysis, I created this graphic organizer

It is not enough to find valid evidence, because evidence itself doesn’t support an argument. What supports an argument is the way students UNPACK or EXPLAIN evidence. Students need lots of opportunities to help articulate their understanding of a text. Explaining and elaborating is a skill students build throughout schooling to help unpack the layers of a text.

How do you help students analyze and articulate their understanding of a text? Share your ideas in the comment section of this blog. I am always interested to know what is working for other teachers and students.

 

 

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Metaphors and Analogies for Teaching Writing

Writing is an abstract idea for many students in middle school. Particularly, essay writing. In an attempt to make writing more accessible to my students, I have been using metaphors and analogies to help my students understand the elements of writing an essay.

Lindsey Richland, professor at University of Chicago, has written many research articles on the use of analogies in mathematics classroom. She lists six cognitive supports for the use of analogies in the mathematics classroom. These supports include:

  1. The teacher uses a familiar source analog to compare to the target analog being taught
  2. The teacher presents the source analog visually
  3. The teacher keeps the source visible to learners during comparison with the target.
  4. The teacher uses spatial cues to highlight the alignment between corresponding elements of the source and target (e.g., diagramming)
  5. The teacher uses hand or arm gestures that signaled an intended comparison (e.g., pointing back and forth between a scale and an equation)
  6. The teacher uses mental imagery or visualizations

Richland’s work is also relevant across content areas. I have found that using metaphors and analogies with my students helps them to visualize and make connections with the content being taught. For example, while working on revising our summer reading essays, I made the following analogies:

Introductory Paragraphs are like Birthday Invitations – The first paragraph of your essay is extremely important.  You will need to get the reader’s attention, build interest, preview the topic and offer necessary background information, and most importantly state your claim clearly and concisely. Similarly, when you send out a birthday invitation to your friends you need to get your friend’s attention, build interest, preview what is going to happen at the party and include any necessary background information, and most importantly, state where and when the party is is going to happen clearly and concisely.

When teaching the claim, I borrowed an analogy from author,  Katherine Bomer, “Essays, like a music composition,  circle around a central idea, riffing on it with stories, questions, and observations, but ultimately cohering around the CORE IDEA.”

I also talked about writer’s having to navigate their thinking on a page the way Google Maps and Waze helps to navigate us home. Unfortunately, there is no app to help teachers and students navigate through an essay. Thus, writers need to always be explaining or clarifying the relationship they are creating between evidence and ideas. Writers need to be sure and clarify or explain each piece of evidence from the text so that readers don’t get lost, confused, or the wrong idea.

What are the metaphors and analogies that you use to teach writing with your students to help them visualize the task at hand? Share your ideas in the Comments below.

 

 

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What did you Read this summer? A Back-to-School Summer Reading Assessment

Summer reading is a political topic these days. Should students be assigned a required summer reading book or should summer be about reading what ever one likes? Should students be allowed to have choice in what they read? How many texts should students be required or expected to read over the summer?

This year, my colleagues and I decided that instead of a required summer reading text, students could read any book of their choice. Incoming students were given a suggested book list created by students that included many contemporary titles both fiction and nonfiction.

With a wide range of summer reading books, how does one assess students? Rather than a creative book reflection and project, I have turned to the traditional essay to assess student reading. This assessment is not one that is graded, but used as a gauge of reading tastes and gain data of students’ reading and writing strengths and weaknesses. I use these assessments to help guide my teaching of reading and writing at the start of the school year.

My summer reading assessment prompt stems from the poignant essay What we Hunger For written by Roxanne Gay.

This essay is honest, harrowing, reflective, and offers a personal response to the Hunger Games trilogy.  The author begins by highlighting the representations of strength in women like Katniss and then brings in her own personal experiences that shaped her reading and admiration of strength in the “flawed” protagonist of Suzanne Collin’s books. Gay addresses the negative response to the violence in the trilogy and through her personal confession offers a counter claim against telling young people what they can and should read. She brings in supportive arguments from contemporary YA authors like Sherman Alexie to support her claims.  Gay concludes with her analysis of Katniss as a strong and relatable character by highlighting imperfection in and all around us. This essay is powerful and inspiring. I knew it was something I wanted to share with my students.

For my 8th graders, I have edited the essay to use as a mentor text. I want students to think about the central ideas in their summer reading books and how it shapes their thinking. How do the books we read over summer time support us and sustain us?

summer reading essay 2016

I look forward to what my students share with me. What are the books they read over summer vacation, and the lessons they share with me.

Do you have a unique or thoughtful summer reading assessment? Feel free to share in the Comments section on this blog.

 

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5 Professional Books to Strengthen Student Learning

I have spent the past two weeks binge reading professional books published this year. Reading professional books about teaching allows me to reflect on my own teaching practices and look into new ways to support the learners in my classroom. All of the books   inform my thinking about literacy in order to strengthen students’ reading and writing.

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Let’s begin by throwing out everything you know and teach about the literary essay in secondary school. The formula for teaching essays in schools is not really an “essay.” Katherine Bomer’s The Journey is Everything: Teaching Essays That Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them (Heinemann, 2016) shares some of the most beautifully crafted essays throughout her book as she calls for the need to revise what we think we already know about teaching and writing essays. Each chapter of her book takes the reader through the “essaying” process from reading closely to crafting powerful essays. Bomer defines essays as “nonfiction prose, whose author unveils a central idea about the world and its occupants and invites – with bold, sometimes lyrical exposition and interesting kaleidoscope of facts, observations, memories, anecdotes, and quotes from others – readers to watch him or her think about that idea for a few pages.” (p.22) She argues the problems with standardized essays forms and supports utilizing the essay for the practice of “writing to think.” Bomer offers strategies to help get ideas down on paper and hones in on the craft moves of great essayists. The book includes powerful essays and essay excerpts from Brian Doyle, LeBron James, Roxane Gay, and dozens more.

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Fisher, Frey, and Lapp’s, Text Complexity: Stretching Readers With Texts and Tasks, 2nd Edition (Corwin & ILA, 2016) addresses the quantitative and qualitative measures of text complexity so teachers can make instructional and assessment decisions to support students as readers. The authors discuss all the characteristics of the reader and a text to consider.  For example, when considering the reader teachers cannot ignore background knowledge, fluency, cultural knowledge, and vocabulary knowledge for text selection and teaching. When choosing a text, teachers must analyze the text for levels of meaning or purpose, structure, language and knowledge demands. These considerations allow teachers to “plan appropriate instruction and strategically guide the development of their learners.” (p. 67) The book contains a number of checklists and tables that highlight the strategies and skills needed to build students’ knowledge. Fisher, Fray and Lapp describe teacher led tasks like Think Alouds, Close Reading, Scaffolding, and Collaborative Conversations as examples of strategies to help students read more, read widely, and read deeply, in order to develop life long readers.

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Years ago I read a book by Robyn R. Jackson titled Never Work Harder Than Your Students (ACSD, 2009) which addressed having students do the difficult work of learning to build stamina and knowledge. Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris’ book Who’s Doing the Work? How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More (Stenhouse, 2016) takes a similar vein to Jackson’s work and looks specifically at Read Alouds, Shared Reading, Guided Reading, and Independent Reading in order for teachers to push students towards leading the conversations about books and reading. By asking students, “What could you try?” puts students in the driver seat instead of scaffolding, front loading, or telling students the answers. We want students be in the driver seat rather than autopilot in our classrooms to thinking deeply and construct meaning versus teachers constructing meaning for students. Constructing meaning should be done by our students and Burkins and Yaris offer strategies and prompts that make stronger readers. Looking to maximize our students’ roles, teachers become facilitators so that students can apply what they know and think.
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Both Who’s Doing All the Work? and Text Complexity address a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006). As Dweck states in an article for EdWeek, “Students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset). And when students learned through a structured program that they could “grow their brains” and increase their intellectual abilities, they did better. Finally, we found that having children focus on the process that leads to learning (like hard work or trying new strategies) could foster a growth mindset and its benefits.”

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Struggle is natural and learning can be challenging, it’s how students respond to challenge, struggle, and the hard parts is what really matters.  Gravity Goldberg’s Mindsets & Moves: Strategies That Help Readers Take Charge (Corwin, 2016) is an ode to growth mindset in the classroom. Building on the works of Dweck, Angela Duckwork’s Grit and Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, Goldberg describes the new role of teachers as miners, mirror, models, and mentors to encourage a “stronger appetite for learning” among our students. Teachers must first admire their students, give detailed and effective feedback, show students what we do as readers, and then guide students towards ways of reading that work for them. Goldberg offers a visual tour of effective classrooms through pictures, descriptions, charts, and lessons.

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Kate Roberts & Maggie Beattie Robert’s DIY Literacy: Teaching Tools for Differentiation, Rigor, and Independence (Heinemann, 2016) offered four teaching tools to bring into the classroom as scaffolds and supports for student learning. Teaching charts, Bookmarks, Micro Progression Charts, and Demonstration Notebooks are four visual tools that explain ideas, clarify, and illustrate skills and techniques so students can turn around and recall key ideas taught.  As a teacher who already uses charts and demonstration notebooks, the micro progression charts and bookmarks were two artifacts that I plan on bringing back to my classroom and utilizing with my students. The micro-progressions of skills chart articulates criteria for students the different levels of that skill and creates a model for each level. Below is a picture of an example of a micro progression chart.

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image from https://i.vimeocdn.com/video/565312636_295x166.jpg

We all have our favorite professional texts for teaching reading and writing. The books mentioned here offer great insight and teaching moves to support students as critical thinkers, readers, and writers.

If you have any professional books you recently read and find helpful with teaching literacy, please share in the Comments section on this blog.

 

 

 

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Attaining Common Core Reading & Writing Standards with Interactive English Notebooks: LILAC/NRC Conference

The topic for this year’s LILAC/NRC (Long Island Language Arts Council & National Reading Conference is “Literacy Matters For Every Learner.” Key note speakers include Richard Allington and Pam Munoz Ryan. I will also be presenting along with 12 additional teachers and literacy coaches addressing topics related to literacy. My session will addressed specific foldables I created for my students to support reading and argumentative writing. I have embedded my slide show for the presentation below.

The foldables and supporting graphic organizers I have included in my presentation include:

 

Interactive Foldables Anchor Standard
Stop and Notice & Note CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.4

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.5

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.10

Introductory Paragraphs: BLT Strategy CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.2

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.4

Writing A Thesis for An Argumentative Essay CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.4

Ways to Start An Essay CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.2

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.4

TEXAS Body Paragraphs CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.2

Writing A Conclusion CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.1.E
Transition Words & Phrases CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.1.C
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Getting Students to Revise & Reflect on their Writing

What are we asking students to do when we ask them to revise and reflect on their writing?

I am of the philosophy that in order to become a better writer, one needs to write daily and look to examples of great writers as models and mentors. When it comes to writing essays in my English class, I have my students writing one essay each quarter. It is not enough if you ask me, but in this current climate of high stakes tests I continue to find a balance between teaching reading and writing.

I have my students write their essays in class and after I read through them, I allow students to revise and improve their essay for a better grade. After reading through the recent compare and contrast essays students wrote in response to  Melba Patillo Beal’s memoir, Warriors Don’t Cry, and Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” I planned a revision workshop to help students reflect on their writing and pinpoint areas where I found many students needed additional support. Reading through ninety five essays I found three places to “teach back” and help improve student writing: Writing a solid thesis or claim; Choosing the strongest evidence to support one’s claim; and Using better transition words.

I created a Revision Passport to guide students throughout the revision workshop and allow students to move around the classroom visiting different stations to help revise and reflect on their writing with the objective to nudge students to revise their writing and produce a stronger essay. After completing the work at a station I checked their work and gave them a stamp on the passport. Students had to complete four different stations.

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Station 1 – The Exemplars

I pulled out two student essays that I felt were exemplars for the entire grade. I retyped the essays and removed the student’s names from the essay for the rest of the class to read through. Students had to write down two things the writer did well in the essay and then record a “writing move” they wanted to steal or borrow from the exemplar.

Station 2 – The Thesis/Claim

Although I have created interactive foldables and taught lessons on writing a clear and solid thesis, this is still a struggle for many writers. The thesis or claim is the heart of the essay. English teacher Ray Salazar has a great blog post on writing a thesis in three steps which  showed my students. I made a graphic organizer for students plug their thesis into the 3 steps Ray describes and then figure out what is missing or what needs to be added to help write a revised thesis that is specific, debatable, and significant to the essay prompt.

Station 3 – Textual Evidence

Not all evidence weighs the same. Students need help finding the strongest evidence to support their claim. At this station I had students look at the evidence they provided in their essay and rank the evidence from strongest to weakest on a graphic organizer. In addition, students had to explain why the evidence is weak or strong. What makes the strongest evidence and why?

Station 4 – Writing Reflection

Looking back at their essay and the work they did during the revision workshop students completed two reflection tasks. Students had to rewrite, in their own words, the comments I made throughout their essays and what I wanted them to improve on. Then, students were to give an example how they were going to make their writing better based on teacher’s comments and the work they did in the revision workshop.

Below is a copy of the revision passport I created and used with my students.

Revision Passport WDC

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Helping Students Build Better Introductory Paragraphs

I always begin the school year with my students writing an argumentative essay connected to their summer reading text.  I do not grade this first essay, but use it as a pre-assessment to gauge my students’ writing strengths and plan the lessons I need to  teach them to become better writers. To help my students understand the expectations for Common Core writing demands,  I spent three consecutive days in writing workshop mode to help my students rethink and revise their first essay for eighth grade.

Each day the workshop began with a ten mini lesson and interactive foldable about an element of the introductory paragraph and then the remaining twenty five minutes was used for writing workshop, revision, and individual conferences. The writing went from general and casual to specific textual details and elaboration with strong academic language. Below are the slides I used for the mini lessons and a handout that I created to help students break down the elements of the introductory paragraph.

 

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